April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.
“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.”
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Each of these poems is as unique as the poet who cooked them up. One poet seduced you with chocolate. Another wondered why you eat health food. All of them reflect culture with nuanced politics, humor and love.
The 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry for her work “Thomas and Beulah,” U.S. Poet Laureate (1993 to 1995), National Medal of Arts honoree (2012) and English professor at the University of Virginia, Dove is known for her lyrical style and historical edge.
She also writes about music in “Sonata Mulattica” and dance in “American Smooth.” As I moved into midlife, I acquired an addiction to chocolate. So naturally, I was drawn to Dove’s ode to the confection entitled “Chocolate.” Here’s an excerpt of it, taken from the “American Smooth” collection:
“Velvet fruit, exquisite square
I hold up to sniff
between finger and thumb —
how you numb me
with your rich attentions!”
I had the honor of meeting and dining with Angelou several times while living in Oakland, Calif. The nation is still grieving the 2014 loss of our beloved storyteller, writer, activist and author of the 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Angelou delivered the poem for the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. She was also an extraordinary chef and humorist. Her poem “The Health-Food Diner” — published in “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou” — is a hilarious poke at vegetarians. If you read the whole thing, you will see the humor, too. She begins with raw veggies while ending the first few stanzas fantasizing about meat. But she builds a crescendo to a frenzy of pork loins, chicken thighs and Irish stew. Here’s how this poem opens:
“No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).”
I met the distinguished Yale professor during the launch of her poetry in the New York City subway at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Poetry in Motion event.
Her “Butter,” included in “The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food & Drink,” edited by Young , is a vivid tribute to her mother and the many delectable ways one can cook with butter. Her British West Indian menu includes Yorkshire puddings in the first half of the poem. Here are some opening lines:
“My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter!”
Giovanni is best known as a civil rights poet activist from the Black Arts Movement.
She writes about food as memory, sustenance and aphrodisiac. A humorous and serious poet-foodie, Giovanni is known for sharing stories about her grandmother, aunts and mother’s cooking at poetry readings. Her book, “Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid,” describes how she went from being the “baby in the family to becoming an elder.” So, while this book is mostly about mourning her loved ones, she spins lovely stories about them through food. This is a must-read for food poetry fans. As she searches for “Utopia” beer to toast her mother’s memory, she explained the correct way to cook grits in “The Right Way”:
“My Grandmother’s grits
Are so much better than mine
Mine tend to be lumpy
And a bit disoriented”
His poem “Harlem” is best known as “A Raisin in the Sun” — the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s acclaimed Broadway play. This was the top poem mentioned when I asked colleagues to name their top five black poets who told stories through the lens of food. Most everyone in my circle can recite this powerful poem by heart. Here are a few lines:
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?”
If these excerpts have left you hungry for more, check the aforementioned “The Hungry Ear,” which features a multicultural blend of poets, including Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Salt” and Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” among dozens of others.
Main photo: For National Poetry Month, I honor my favorite African-American poets who chose to write about food. Credit: Copyright Sylvia Wong Lewis